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New Mayan-language radio program explores Indigenous culture

How to listen

“Rescatando Nuestras Raices y Tradiciones” or “Rescuing Our Roots and Traditions,” hosted by Francisco Icala Tiriquiz, has new episodes on KBBF 89.1 FM every Sunday from 5 to 6 p.m.

Francisco Icala Tiriquiz spent his childhood being a translator for his family, but it wasn’t until 1995, when he witnessed the interaction between a friend and police in Los Angeles, that he decided to pursue a career as an interpreter.

His friend, who like him is a K'iche' Maya, an Indigenous group from Guatemala, was pulled over by officers who mistook the baggy shirt he wore for a sign that he was a gang member, Icala Tiriquiz said.

In Spanish, the officers yelled at his friend to put his hands in the air, though he only knew how to speak K'iche', the language of the K'iche' people, Icala Tiriquiz said.

Icala Tiriquiz, who happened to be with his friend at the time, began to translate for his friend and for the officers, who eventually let his friend go.

But by the end of the encounter, one of the officers harshly advised Icala Tiriquiz to stop speaking his maternal language and “go study English,” he said.

“I started thinking, ‘What should I do?,” Icala Tiriquiz said of the confrontation. “’’Give up my culture, my language and my customs? Or rescue my culture?’”

Three years later, Icala Tiriquiz received a grant at what was formerly known as the Monterey Institute of International Studies to train to be a professional interpreter.

After more than two decades of working in the field, Icala Tiriquiz added the title of radio host to his resume last month with the premiere of a dual language program in K'iche' and Spanish on KBBF-FM, Sonoma County’s bilingual public radio station.

The program, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m. on Sundays, is named “Rescatando Nuestras Raices y Tradiciones,” which translates to “rescuing our roots and traditions.”

The topics he’s covered so far include the Maya calendar and the use and benefits of traditional Maya herbs. In future programs, he plans to host Indigenous artists from Guatemala and talk about temazcals, low-heat sweat lodges, Icala said.

He hopes the program will help young people with K'iche' roots who are raised in the U.S. learn more about their own culture and history, Icala Tiriquiz said.

He’d also like the show to serve as a resource for K'iche' natives, some of whom might not speak Spanish, as well as establish a sense of pride among those raised with the K'iche' language, Icala Tiriquiz said.

“I think for many people, it’s something very beautiful (to hear K'iche' on the radio),” Icala Tiriquiz said. “It’s a good way for people to value what they have.”

The K'iche' people are just one of several Indigenous Maya groups that are spread across parts of southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize and other nearby countries.

In Guatemala alone, there are 21 different Mayan communities that make up the majority of the country’s population and approximately 26 Indigenous Mayan languages that are still in use, according to the Minority Rights Group International, a human rights organization based out of London.

But the size of the Mayan community within the U.S. has historically been hard to capture due to language barriers between census workers and those groups, among other issues, said Marisa Christensen Lundin, the legal director for the California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.’s Indigenous Program, which offers legal and educational support for the state’s rural Indigenous Mexican and Central American communities.

While the U.S. Census allows Maya people to indicate where they’re from under the American Indian and Alaska Native response to the question about race, a detailed breakdown of the different groups who identified as such in Sonoma County was not available on the census website.

A 2010 study of California’s Indigenous Workers that the group was a part of estimated there were 165,000 Mexican Indigenous residents, counting both children and adults, living in rural California, the study showed. Most came from the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero.

One challenge for many of the people that the nonprofit works with is access to information in their native language, as opposed to Spanish, which they may be not speak very fluently, Christensen Lundin said.

In Sonoma County, the nonprofit has worked with Indigenous Chatino, Mixteco, Triqui and Zapotec people, groups that originate from Mexico, she added.

While Indigenous people that move to the U.S. from southern Mexico and Central America often face discrimination from both Latinos and Americans because of their identity ― which can lead to shame ― Christensen Lundin has also seen a new wave of young Indigenous people who are proudly embracing who they are, she said.

“We do see a resurgence, or a sense of importance and desperation to claim and preserve their languages,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

How to listen

“Rescatando Nuestras Raices y Tradiciones” or “Rescuing Our Roots and Traditions,” hosted by Francisco Icala Tiriquiz, has new episodes on KBBF 89.1 FM every Sunday from 5 to 6 p.m.

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